It’s said that the best camera is the one that you have with you. This saying really rings true with me when I think about all of the memories that I’ve captured with the Google Pixel XL since I started using it last year.
As my Google Photos library tells me, it has captured 1,870 moments (I know this seems low, but it’s because the Pixel’s camera usually got the perfect shot on the first try). This camera has been in my pocket, ready at the draw to take in the scene of the many once-in-a-lifetime occasions I experienced this year and of my cats in a silly or hilariously regal pose. And for both of them, I trusted it completely.
Sure, many smartphones probably could have done these moments justice. But as I sort through each of them, I’m glad that it was the Google Pixel that captured them. While the phone itself is divisive, its camera is, even by today’s standards, the Pixel’s standout feature, and one that has me most looking forward to the Google Pixel 2 and Google Pixel 2 XL. Here’s why (and stay for a gallery of some cherished memories down below.)
Specs rarely tell the entire story
Looking at specs alone, the Pixel’s cameras might not seem all that impressive. The front-facing selfie camera isn’t pushing megapixel boundaries at 8MP and with an aperture of f/2.4, it shouldn’t be as stellar at balancing light and color depth as it is.
The rear-facing camera is 12MP with a f/2.0 aperture, and those, too, aren’t the best numbers for low-light photography or for scaling smoothly between portraits and landscape shots. For comparison, the new LG V30 has an f/1.6 value. But the results speak against this logic.
The Google Pixel’s optics are at times far ahead of many smartphone sensors and while I’m not a photography expert, it’s easy to pin this spec-defying success on how tightly-knit the Pixel’s camera software and hardware are.
Of its many good qualities, like speedy autofocus and equally fast capture, perhaps my favorite is that the camera reliably shoots something that’s very close to the actual scene. And for right now, that’s exactly what I want: to remember things how they were, not how the camera thinks things should look. But of course, when Google Lens’ artificial intelligence takes the wheel to crop out distractions is the foreground and improve night-time shooting, I’ll gladly abide.
In 2016, Google touted its camera as being the best ever in a smartphone, and aside from many glowing personal stories like my own, its success has been noticed from within the smartphone industry.
Filed under “more proof that specs don’t mean everything”, a staffer told us during a briefing for the Essential Phone that its modular 360-degree camera attachment utilizes the same sensor found inside of the Google Pixel.
But as we discovered in our review, this sensor put to use without the accompanying software – Google’s secret sauce – isn’t all that impressive. Looking at the results, it’s pretty obvious that the software pulls at least half of the weight in the Pixel, and its absence is very noticeable.
A bright future
For those who own the Google Pixel, you’re in a real conundrum. The phone still has plenty of life left in it, but the one you probably want in your pocket next has some seriously large shoes to fill. So large that I think only the Google Pixel 2 can fill it.
While leaked benchmarks don’t speak to the Pixel 2’s day-to-day camera performance, it’s likely to have many improvements over the current model, such as the aforementioned Google Lens AI smarts, enhanced depth of field modes to stay on equal footage with its dual rear lens-packing competition, and optical image stabilization (OIS) to keep your videos smooth while in motion.
Considering that we haven’t actually seen the rumored phone in the flesh, all we have to go off of are these leaked photos, like the one above. Look at the sensor, it’s almost as large as the fingerprint reader. It’s possible that, now, the specs will rival that of its competition, but with all of the delicious secret software sauce slathered on top.
The original Pixel changed my standards of just how good a smartphone lens can be and should be. And as such, my expectations for its successor are quite high. It will be tough to forgive Google for ditching the headphone jack of the Pixel 2, as it’s rumored to do, but an awesome camera will be one of the few ways to smooth over the gap.
Here's a look back on my year captured with the Google Pixel XL
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Cameron is a writer at The Verge, focused on reviews, deals coverage, and news. He wrote for magazines and websites such as The Verge, TechRadar, Practical Photoshop, Polygon, Eater and Al Bawaba.